How the Middle Corridor is Shaping Georgia's Relations With the West
(Eurasianet) Relations between the Georgian government and its Western allies have been anything but smooth lately. Calls for democratic reforms from the European Union and the United States are increasingly met with attacks and conspiracy theories from Tbilisi.
The tensions have been felt everywhere from the repeated show of mutual discontent to the uncomfortable demeanor of Georgian leaders during their high-level meetings with their European counterparts.
With one exception: when the word "connectivity" comes up Georgian officials suddenly gain confidence and are happy to offer their allies the transit potential that last year's geopolitical shifts bestowed on the country.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine found Georgia at the center of the main alternative transit route that connects the East with the West while bypassing Russia. But while the new opportunities it brought have been embraced in Georgia and elsewhere, worries are mounting that Tbilisi may seek to use its rising geopolitical significance as a bargaining chip with the West.
"From the outside it appears that the government is tempted to use this geopolitical factor and sometimes even speaks the language of blackmail with the West," Kornely Kakachia, head of Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP), a Tbilisi-based think tank, told Eurasianet.
The Middle Corridor project, also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, a transit corridor linking East Asia and Europe via Central Asia and the South Caucasus, has existed for many years and gained momentum as part of China's Belt and Road initiative. But the multimodal route crossing two seas and several countries had been less favored than the more convenient northern overland route through Russia until the war diverted masses of international cargo southward.
And as trucks started queuing at Georgia's borders, the issue landed on the agenda of high-level international meetings and gradually became an integral part of Western discourse on Georgia.
The Middle Corridor came up during a recent Senate hearing for Rubin Dunnigan, the nominee to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi, after she was asked about ways to counter Russian influence in Georgia.
"The work we do with Georgia in terms of security cooperation, and economic cooperation, trying to integrate Georgia with the West through a Middle Corridor, through energy infrastructure, and transport infrastructure, these are all of the steps that really do help cement Georgia's future with the West. And if confirmed, I would continue to make this a priority because I think it is essential," said Dunnigan, who has extensive experience in energy diplomacy and now serves as a deputy assistant Secretary of State.
Various voices in American and European think tank circles have raised the issue of securing transit routes in their calls on Western governments to put more focus on Georgia.
And in the 14 months since the start of Moscow's war on Ukraine, Georgian authorities have moved to take advantage of the opportunity: Tbilisi revived the controversially terminated Anaklia deep sea port project, to be built this time with the state as majority shareholder, with a call for private investments to cover the rest. And the government has been rushing to complete the construction of the country's main East-West highway and modernize the railway system in a bid to raise capacity for handling more international cargo.
The biggest highlight of efforts to date was perhaps the launch of an underwater cable project that would link European and South Caucasus electricity systems and facilitate electricity exports from the region. While Azerbaijan is seen as the key exporter, Tbilisi has expressed its own ambitions to ramp up power generation for potential exports, at times stoking local controversies.
Kakachia sees the project itself as a positive development but fears Georgia's authoritarian-leaning government may want to use the country's enhanced new role to haggle with the West.
The Georgian Dream party government "thinks that its geopolitical weight amid the Ukraine war and emergence of these corridors is so important that Europe must turn a blind eye, say, to the democratic backsliding in the country," he said. Kakachia said he believes Tbilisi is emboldened by the example of Azerbaijan, whose lack of democracy has not deterred the EU from cooperating and signing energy agreements with it.
"But the major difference is that Azerbaijan neither has Euro-Atlantic ambitions nor seeks to become a member of the European Union," Kakachia said.
These developments come as Georgia awaits the EU's decision on its bid for membership candidate status. This rare opportunity was yet another major effect of the Ukraine war and the ensuing change in geopolitical thinking in Europe. But political polarization and democratic challenges, coupled with Tbilisi's anti-Western rhetoric, are viewed to have led to the failure to become a candidate in its first attempt last year.
The outcome later this year will depend on the progress Georgia is perceived to have made on the 12 reform priorities on which Brussels has conditioned the country's candidate status. It is unclear how much its role as a corridor will counterbalance the persistent democratic challenges.
"From an EU perspective, the challenge will be to finely balance geopolitics and geoeconomics with values, forming an integral part of the EU's foreign policy interests," Sonja Schiffers, director of the South Caucasus office of the German Heinrich Boell Foundation, told Eurasianet. According to Schiffers, the Georgian government to some extent benefits from the geopolitical approach that the EU has been pursuing since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
"One could argue that values should be part and parcel of the EU's geopolitics, but in reality, they are not always at the forefront," Schiffers said.
Georgia has already reported a noticeable rise in freight turnover and transit traffic over the past year, but the Middle Corridor is expected to reach its real potential only after the transiting countries overcome infrastructural challenges. It is hoped that the corridor will facilitate cargo, oil, and electricity exports. Last month, Georgian Railways launched shipments of Toyota, BMW, and Audi cars to Central Asia. This year, Kazakhstan started exporting oil and uranium through the Middle Corridor. Experts predict that if these challenges are properly addressed, the route will retain its relevance even after the war in Ukraine ends.
Ultimately, overreliance on this role in its foreign relations may not be a risk worth taking for the Georgian government. Recent pro-EU protests against proposed foreign agent laws demonstrated the Georgian public's entrenched commitment to European integration, a trend reflected in the latest opinion polls. Another failure to obtain the status may come at a domestic political cost.
"The West and in particular the EU will not accept Georgia only for its geopolitical weight," Kakachia said. "Geopolitical weight is important, but without work related to the fulfillment of the 12 recommendations, to issues of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, the country cannot move forward on the European integration path."